When the Engineer Gardens

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

As with every spring, the rains fall, the sun shines, and I remain hopelessly inept as a gardener. Or, maybe, "inept" isn't quite the right word. "Lazy" and "impatient". There, that's the ticket. So, despite fantasizing repeatedly about the wonderful life we would lead if only we got around to putting in some vegetables this year, my husband and I have never gotten around to putting in some vegetables. At best, we keep the lawn mowed and free of vehicles on blocks.

But that may be changing because, last week, Baker brought home a copy of The All New Square Foot Gardening guide, a book written by a retired engineer, which manages to make home veggie patches appealing to both my laissez-faire approach to plant life, and Baker's (who is, himself, an engineer) tendencies towards efficiency-obsession and Maker glee. The book promises to help you grow more, in less space, with less work. OK, I'm game.

The basic idea is that most people try to garden like they're making a miniature farmstead—with wide rows, hills and furrows, plowed into the earth of your backyard. And, frankly, all that adds up to a pain in the ass. Tilling sucks. Your dirt probably isn't ideal for growing things. You get weeds that need to be dealt with every day. The watering process wastes water and usually ends up with some plants drowning and other plants parched. And all you want is a freakin' salad.

Square-foot gardening, on the other hand, is all about eliminating those problems. Instead of tilling the dirt and pumping in fertilizer, you build a big box, put a liner on the bottom, and fill it with a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite and compost. Great soil. And no weed seeds to sprout up.Because you make the box small enough to reach everything without stepping in the dirt, your soil stays aerated. Because you don't have to weed, you can grow plants from fewer seeds, closer together, with each box broken down into neat, anal-retentive grids. The idea of a garden that can be plotted out on graph paper is already making Baker salivate.

The watering solution is particularly slick. Instead of moving around a sprayer that never seems to successfully dampen the full area you've aimed it at (and chucks water onto places that don't need it), you hook up a pipe system to your box and screw in the hose. Plant stuff than needs lots of water closer to the pipe, and stuff that needs less further away. Then you can turn the water on (at a lower pressure than you'd use for spraying) and let it trickle down.

I'll be honest, as the wife of an engineer, I end up poking a lot of fun at the hyper-planning, "let us sit down and work out the numbers before we toast that bread" mindset. But it's all in fun. I promise. You engineers can be as detail-oriented as you want to be, as long as you keep offering up great solutions like this.

Image of a nicely gridded-up square foot garden courtesy shygantic, via a Creative Commons license.